Cambodia's Curse: The modern history of a troubled land by Joel Brinkley
Reviewed by Sebastian Strangio
PHNOM PENH - In June 2010, diplomats and donors converged on a conference hall in Cambodia's capital for a meeting with senior government officials. Seated in rows with headphones beaming in live translations, donor representatives listened to key ministers speak about the country's progress on a series of agreed to good governance reforms.
Despite concerns raised about a spate of illegal land grabs, persistent human-rights abuses and legal harassment of government critics - all of which prompted the usual vague assurances from officials that the situation would improve - donors offered development aid totaling an unprecedented US$1.1 billion for fiscal 2010-11.
Aid to Cambodia has increased more or less consistently since the United Nations Transitional Authority's (UNTAC) departure from the country in 1993. A child of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, UNTAC was designed to bring an end to Cambodia's long civil war, establish a functioning electoral system and eventually usher in economic development.
For any observer of contemporary Cambodia, however, the optimism of the UNTAC era now seems almost quaint. If one accepts political commentator Fareed Zakaria's dictum that a democratic system is better symbolized by the impartial judge than the mass plebiscite (Cambodia, after all, has elections), then one glance at the judicial system - where bribery and political interference are more or less the norm - is all it takes to conclude that the country is not meaningfully democratic.
While the Khmer Rouge era has produced reams of historical accounts and personal memoirs, most books focused on contemporary Cambodia peter out in the late 1990s following the death of the Khmer Rouge insurgency and the end of the country's bloody civil war. How Cambodia has since dealt with the wages of peace remains largely unexamined.
It is therefore welcome that American journalist Joel Brinkley chose Cambodia as the subject for his fifth book, Cambodia's Curse: the modern history of a troubled land. Brinkley, a 25-year veteran of the New York Times who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the refugee crisis that followed the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, returned to Cambodia in 2008 to examine what it had done with UNTAC's $3 billion "gift". What he finds is a country bereft of the rule of law and plagued by grinding poverty, where human development indices are among the lowest in Asia.
Brinkley does a commendable job in sketching out the contours of Cambodian society. His narrative is enlivened by the voices of individual Cambodians who have been marginalized by the country's corrupt political system. Traveling around the country, he examines Cambodia's courts, schools and health system, all of which have been bled dry by graft and hollowed out by years of official neglect.
He visits ramshackle settlements on the edges of Phnom Penh, where thousands of residents have been dumped after being illegally uprooted from valuable land in the city center, and highlights the nexus of corrupt officials and businessmen who have plundered Cambodia's natural resources for personal gain. In one of the book's more memorable passages, Brinkley interviews tycoon and senator Mong Reththy at his luxurious Phnom Penh villa, listening to the businessman proffer a series of thin excuses about the origins of his lavish wealth.
Unfortunately, the book's text is marred by a series of small factual errors. Officials or political parties are occasionally misidentified (Deputy Prime Minister Sok An is not a member of the government's ruling triumvirate, whose three-headed insignia Brinkley spots on the wristwatch of a government official); the now daily Phnom Penh Post was never published weekly, though it was previously a fortnightly publication.
Brinkley also errs when he describes Pol Pot as having died a "free man" in 1998. In fact, the Khmer Rouge leader was living under house arrest at the time of his death after facing a kangaroo court set up by the last remaining members of his Maoist movement. His preface ends with the puzzling assertion that Cambodians "remain the most abused people in the world", a phrase that invites rather aimless comparison with other unfortunate nations in the developing world.
The book's best passages deal with the complex relationship between Cambodia and its Western aid donors. The author deftly charts the process by which government officials, through a combination of flattery and feigned outrage, have learnt to manipulate foreign governments into pledging ever-higher amounts of development assistance, all the while presiding over a system that has consigned the majority of Cambodians to poverty. He also pours acid on those foreign aid workers who, attached to the country's comfortable expatriate lifestyle - Phnom Penh's parallel economy of "espresso bars and stylish restaurants" - see little incentive to rock the boat.
The text falters, however, when Brinkley attempts to answer the questions posed by his own narrative: why, in the final analysis, do contemporary Cambodians seem unable to struggle against those who exploit them? Why do so many seemingly accept poverty and exploitation as their natural lot in life? His thesis, built into the title of his book, is that Cambodia is somehow "cursed" by cultural hand-me-downs from its feudal past. "Far more than almost any other state," he writes, "modern Cambodia is a product of customs and practices set in stone a millennium ago".
"Given their history, given the subservient state Cambodians have accepted without complaint for more than a millennium, they don't seem to care," he adds. "Now, once again, most expect nothing more than they have. They carry no ambitions. They hold no dreams. All they want is to be left alone."
This is hardly the case. The country's modern history is rife with examples of rebellion, of which the Khmer Rouge, while representing its bloody apotheosis, was far from the only significant manifestation. Brinkley's assertion also fails to account for the villagers who have fought back against land grabbing by corrupt officials and the continuing efforts of those human-rights activists, trade union leaders and opposition figures who have stood up to demand more official accountability, often at threat to their lives.
For Brinkley, Cambodia's great hope lies in its foreign donors. If only such governments and international institutions put pressure on prime minister Hun Sen's government to enact key reforms and respect international human-rights law, he reasons, Cambodians might "after 1,000 years" be delivered from their perpetual suffering.
Given Brinkley's emphasis on foreign countries - some of his main sources, tellingly, are former US ambassadors to Cambodia - it is surprising that the rise of China rates only a brief mention in the book's epilogue. In recent years, Beijing has risen to become Cambodia's main source of investment and economic aid, a development that has undoubtedly complicated the West's ability to take a principled policy stand. The related point is that Western donors may actually have wider strategic objectives than promoting human rights or good governance.
By appealing to cultural essentialism and putting much of the onus for change on Cambodia's foreign donors, Brinkley leaves little scope for the possibility that Cambodians themselves may be able to forge their own path to a better life. As the yearly government-donor meetings play out year after year with much the same effect, there may, at the end of the day, be little in the way of an alternative.
Cambodia's Curse: The modern history of a troubled land by Joel Brinkley. PublicAffairs, 2011. ISBN 1586487876. Price US$27.99, 416 pages.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can be reached at email@example.com.